Meditation is a pretty big thing these days. Previously reserved for monks, yogis or hippies now you hear of even CEOs and billionaires swearing by it. Honestly, I’m not surprised – it’s certainly changed my life (and I don’t say that lightly).
I can’t remember when I started meditating. It was probably about 5 or 6 years ago. I started listening to guided meditations off YouTube and really could only sit for a very short period of time (5-10minutes) and certainly not in complete silence. I found it so uncomfortable – like an internal itch – and my mind came up with a million reasons why I should either skip practice that day, or give up when I’d only just started. It took a lot of persistence and listening to my favourite Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron on Audible to learn to sit and not “scratch the itch” by getting up, as she calls it. According to Pema, and Buddhists in general, what you get from meditation occurs precisely in those moments that you choose to sit and stay with the discomfort, rather than avoiding it. Actually, that’s probably been the best lesson I’ve learned from meditation and taken off the mat into the rest of life – I don’t need to give in when I’m feeling uncomfortable (physically or mentally) and can sit and deal with it and its okay. In fact, I used this even yesterday as I was dragging my 39 week pregnant body up a giant hill in the bush behind my house!
This is a pretty powerful lesson when you realise how often in the day we fight discomfort and use crappy coping strategies to get rid of it (like smoking, drinking, eating, scrolling mindlessly on social media, arguing, tapping out to mindless TV, for some it gets as bad as taking drugs, getting in fights and being aggressive, even committing domestic violence).. whatever – it’s all the same thing when you look at it at a deeper level – just different (usually not helpful) ways of (not) dealing with emotions and situations that arise that we don’t like or feel like we can’t handle.
But, it’s really not been until pregnancy that I’ve integrated this practice daily (or almost). When I asked my old boss, a Clinical Psychologist who specialises in child development, parenting and attachment, what his advice was for me as a parent he said simply “calm mum, calm bub”. I thought about this and and decided to start meditating regularly, knowing it’s the fastest way to a calm Caysha. I looked into the literature around it and meditating in pregnancy has amazing outcomes including reduced anxiety, depression and stress during and after pregnancy, and even some preliminary evidence to say it can prevent premature birth, increase baby’s health and decrease risk of developmental issues. That’s pretty powerful, and although the research is still in its infancy I figured it can’t hurt.
Meditation allows me to be more mindful during the day too which means giving myself space to get out of my head and into the real world. It means I can connect to the small moments in the day – like noticing a beautiful bird, or being present in a conversation. Ironically, it’s meant my pregnancy has flown by because I’ve been more present and less eager for things to hurry up. Its also helped me to deal with some uncomfortable pregnancy symptoms, knowing that they’ll pass eventually and creating a space between me and the physical feelings (which actually helps alot with managing them).
I know that it helps my relationship immensely too – it’s like I can see us from a third perspective, and when we start to argue I feel calm and able to diffuse the situation without reacting, or I can call a truce, or just act from a more compassionate place (let’s be real – not every time, but more and more). I’m more willing and open to his point of view, and less eager to ‘win’ or get my way (which is very unlike normal, stubborn me). I’m also less likely to “bite the hook” (another one from dear Pema) in general, and this ability to be less reactive has helped me to experience really intense negative emotions like frustration or anger less, as though they’re diffused. Plus, when I do feel these emotions, I can actually feel them rather than try to avoid them (which generally leads to them popping up in some other way later). Overall, I feel calmer, more relaxed, less manic, clearer and more present.
I really notice a difference on the days I meditate compared to those I don’t- I’m less in my mind and definitely more generous, loving and compassionate to myself and others around me. I feel less anxious, more rational and more clear headed. I’m not sure if I can explain properly, but its like I see the truth of things – like cleaning a dirty window and actually seeing the beautiful view outside rather than seeing a distorted version muddled by murky glass and inaccurate beliefs that I’m holding as fact. I see the duality to things – that everything has multiple sides, many viewpoints – no right answer. That’s big for me.
Buddhists also say meditation is the way to heal the world. I absolutely could not see this when I first heard about it. It sounded selfish. I thought ‘How can sitting alone and focusing on your breathing change the world more than activism or some other more common action?’ but I’ve listened to not just Pema, but also Thich Nhat Hanh, Byron Katie and Joe Dispenza on Audible, read books by the Dalai Lama, Sadhguru and Eckhart Tolle, and listened to podcasts by the Buddhist Society of Western Australia and Audio Dharma, and the message is always the same – increasing your awareness of the present moment increases your compassion and ability to act from loving kindness and this in turn influences the way you act in the world, as well as with the people around you. That has a flow on effect.
It makes sense right – the more you meditate the more loving and open you are to all creatures, the more you can act from empathy, and so the more you make better decisions every single day. This might involve being more willing to donate your money or time to a cause, or just being more mindful of your actions so that something you may normally do for convenience that hurts others directly or indirectly is no longer an option for you (like buying cage eggs, throwing a cigarette butt on the ground, yelling at your kids or saying something hurtful to your partner). It also means being kinder to those around you which improves their day and means they’re more likely to act from an open and loving heart too – and so the cycle continues, see? For me, I just feel more open and willing to open my heart and do the right thing without my own selfishness getting in the way.
When you meditate regularly, from my experience, it also influences others to do the same- and so their life is improved too. My husband and I are often at different stages of our relationships with meditation. If he’s meditating alot, I’m not and vice versa. But lately after my continued practice for a long period he’s been joining me and we meditate together. Honestly, it’s one of my favourite parts of the day. Just breathing together and enjoying silence, it’s blissful.
The issue, of course, is how to do it so these are my main tips, and while I’m a yoga teacher I’m not a meditation teacher so this is just what I’ve found has worked for me:
1. Start small. 5 minutes a day is fine (or 1 if 5 is too much- you can do anything for 60 seconds). Only when you feel ready add more time – if you start out too big too soon you won’t do it – after a Joe Dispenza live show we bought his 60 minute guided meditation and I did it twice and just thought how on earth am I meant to get the time to meditate for an hour, practice yoga, walk my dogs, have a job and do everything else the day requires? So I just didn’t meditate. Then I realised I can fit a smaller amount of time in, and it is worth it even if it’s not a full hour! That time grew to 30 minutes a day and now I do that regularly. Something is better than nothing.
2. Meditate at the same time every day. I found first thing in the morning when I was working helped to get it over and done with, and it really improved my day so I was more willing to do it the next morning again. Plus, your mind is quieter in the morning rather than after a busy, adrenalin, coffee-fueled day (and that way ingrained de-flating techniques like drinking wine and watching TV won’t be competing with your practice).
3. Meditate in the same place every day. Thich Nhat Hanh suggests setting up a particular spot that is only for meditation. It might be a corner of a room, or for me it’s my deck. I don’t only use the deck for meditation, I also practice yoga there or sit in my hammock swing drinking tea, but they’re all ‘relaxing’ activities so I find as soon as I sit there I feel calm, and that’s the point of having a spot – to create that association. Choose a place free of distraction (eg. no TV in the background and turn your phone on silent and put it away) and decorate it simply but nicely so you’re not surrounded by mess that beckons to you to clean it up rather than meditate.
3. If you’ve said you’ll sit for a period of time, really commit to that. Yes it’s uncomfortable sometimes – watch that discomfort, watch the way you react to the discomfort, notice how your mind gets busy and the way you talk to yourself when you’re uncomfortable, and most of all just stay. Is sitting down with your eyes closed for 5 minutes really so hard?
4. Aim to do it every day. Habits are created through repetition so the more you practice the easier it will get.
5. Start with guided meditation if you find silence too hard, and slowly introduce periods of silent meditation as it gets more habitual.
6. Remember the point of meditation isn’t to stop thoughts, it’s to observe them, and even the most seasoned mediators get distracted so notice if you get caught in a thought tangent and instead of getting frustrated just come back to observing your breath.
7. I found using mala beads really helped transition me to silent meditation. They’re also known as Prayer Beads and are sort of like rosary beads, but instead of saying a Hail Mary Buddhists and Yogis repeat a chant or mantra such as Om, or in my case, breathe with each bead moving my finger along to the next bead with the next breath. I breathe in for 4 seconds and out for 8 counting slowly. There are 108 beads on a chain and this takes me around 30 minutes to complete. I also have a beaded bracelet with 30 beads so if I am in a rush, or feeling stressed in the day, I breathe to one round of the bracelet.
8. Find what works for you. Experiment. Go to classes. Read books. Talk to others who meditate. Things work for me at different times so remember to be adaptable, be kind to yourself and start easy – you’re more likely to continue your practice if it’s not impossible- but also be disciplined and if you commit to it, give yourself the gift of really committing to that time each day.
9. Remember that each day is different so if yesterday was hard, don’t let that put you off today – today might seem easy. But also don’t be surprised if you have a lot of easier days and then suddenly one is hard – it’s a good day to learn from – so sit and listen regardless of whether it’s hard or easy.
10. If you have a history of trauma, especially interpersonal trauma or PTSD, or panic attacks, sitting in silence or focusing on your breath might trigger you. If this is the case be gentle with yourself and if it’s exacerbating symptoms, find a teacher or a psychologist trained in Meditation who can help you work through what arises in a safe space. Meditation can be especially useful for you, but it does tend to bring up those things which we wish to bury, so if you need a helping hand that’s okay.
11. If you find sleep difficult, meditating before bed can be particularly helpful so keep that in mind, but alcohol does interfere with your ability to meditate (and sleep for that matter) so if you like a drink after work or with dinner perhaps the morning is best.
Starting a meditation practice was one of the best decisions I ever made, and I really mean that. Persisting through my imperfection in practice was an even better choice, and one I have to make every single day. It doesn’t get easier (sorry), but you do get better and each time I practice I am reminded why I have decided to follow this path, and why I will continue to. Meditation has made me love myself more – not in a conceited, narcissistic way – just in a self-accepting, no I’m not perfect but I’m doing my best way. And that feeling gets projected out to the people around me – so I accept them in their faults too.
I would love to know – are you a meditator? If so, what brought you to it? If not, what stops you?